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Original Issue


On Sept. 15, 1896, on a stretch of prairie a few miles north of Waco, Texas, two steam locomotives, each going 60 mph and each pulling six boxcars, crashed head on. At least forty thousand spectators watched it happen. Dozens were injured. Two were killed.

The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad staged the collision as a publicity stunt to, in effect, put central Texas and the rail line on the map, and it worked. Nearly every newspaper in the country wrote of the event in advance and then carried coverage of it, and stories of the great crash appeared in papers around the world. Thirty-three special excursion trains brought people to the scene, some from such distant points as Kansas City and Chicago.

The M.K&T Railroad, commonly known as the Katy and still in operation, linked St. Louis, Kansas City and the port of Galveston. Along its 2,800 miles of track lay a stretch perfectly suited for the spectacle of wrecking trains. It was straight. It dipped into a long, shallow valley and then climbed out, so that both trains could make a downhill run, gain speed and collide at the valley's lowest point. And on both sides of the track, at a proper distance, were gentle slopes from which thousands of people would have a fine view.

The decision to wreck the trains was made first and then the search began to find a site. The man ordered to find it was the aptly named William George Crush, general passenger agent for the Katy. Crush was, in fact, in charge of every aspect of the crash; it was his show. He seems to have been energetic, imaginative, well-connected and thorough, for he did a splendid job. He handled the publicity. He laid out the difficult logistics of maneuvering 33 excursion trains over a single railroad track to the same point within a few hours and caring for their passengers. And he dealt with the technical problems of making two decrepit and temperamental steam locomotives run as if they were young again for a few glorious moments, and then destroy each other precisely in front of a grandstand filled with VIPs.

The population of central Texas in 1896 was thin. Waco had about 12,000 citizens; Dallas just slightly more than 40,000. Between the two cities dirt roads connected little towns where cotton farmers traded. There were no cars and no highways. The Katy was the great artery of travel north and south. The site selected for the crash had no facilities for visitors, just grass, grasshoppers, a few trees and a hard, hot sky. So for the purpose of staging his train wreck in style—and gathering in a bit of the excursionists' money—William Crush founded Crush, Texas, a town-for-a-day that sprang up on the open prairie and, for a few hours, challenged Dallas as Texas' largest city.

Quite a bit of extra track had to be laid at Crush, for it was obvious that after the wreck the main line wouldn't be usable for days. Katy workmen built a platform nearly half a mile long where several trains at once could disembark passengers. Crush arranged to have the trains, once emptied, wait on sidings at Waco (16 miles to the south) and Hillsboro (20 miles north). He filled eight railway tank cars with pure artesian drinking water, equipped them with multiple faucets and drinking cups on chains and strung them out along a track of their own. Mid-September is hot in Texas. There was to be no charge for a drink'of water.

A circus tent, borrowed from The Ringling Brothers, became a restaurant: two dozen waiters served sandwiches, light lunches and iced tea. But no alcoholic beverages were sold, because Crush figured that the liquor brought in by the spectators would cause confusion enough. He built a wooden jail and recruited 200 special constables to fill it with drunks and pickpockets.

Though Crush was a friend of P.T. Barnum's and had access to his skill with publicity, he didn't need it. The mere announcement that the great train wreck was to occur started people all over the country to speculating about just how awful it would be. Still, Crush distributed throughout Katy's territory circus-style posters, showing in bright colors an artist's conception of the crash. Excursion tickets cost $2.

The locomotives selected for immolation weighed 35 tons each. They had been around since about 1870, and they looked it. Their cowcatchers had probably nosed through herds of buffalo on the Kansas plains. But the roundhouse crew at Denison, Texas was confident that it could raise enough steam in the engines' old boilers to generate the necessary speed.

The key question was, would the boilers burst in the crash? If they did, hundreds of locomotive parts would become projectiles traveling as much as half a mile, and the number of injured spectators—not to mention lawsuits against the Katy—might be unacceptable. An old roundhouse foreman named Hanrahan, who had railroaded in Ireland before coming to America, assured Crush that the boilers certainly would burst. But everybody else, engineers, shop bosses and steam fitters, said they wouldn't. Hanrahan was so heavily outvoted in this opinion poll that Crush turned his attention to other matters.

A tent city appeared at Crush. Its residents were railroad people working on the project and folks from nearby towns who had come to watch them work. Even the preparations for a train wreck were better entertainment than most central Texans were used to.

Jervis Deane of Waco was the official photographer. Crush built a stand for him, a little nearer the planned collision point—which was marked by a post beside the track—than anyone else's vantage point. Deane was willing to take the risk partly because he was an adventurous sort and partly because good pictures would be worth good money. With two assistants and three cameras on the platform, he planned to photograph the rushing trains a few feet away from each other, the collision itself, and the wreckage as soon as the smoke had cleared.

The trains were brought to the site three days early for trial runs and timing. No. 1001 had been painted bright red, No. 999 bright green. The boxcars carried huge ads for The Ringling Brothers' circus and a Dallas hotel, the Oriental. The trains made stops en route for public inspection and to stir up interest in the big event.

Things went well. The weather stayed hot and bright. Concessionaires set up lemonade stands and carnival booths, and people from all over Texas arrived a day or more early, in buggies and wagons and on horseback. Whole towns and hundreds of farmhouses were vacated on Sept. 14 and 15.

By 10 a.m. on the 15th, the population of Crush had grown to 10,000. The excursion trains steamed in at the rate of one every 12 minutes, a batch from the north and then a batch from the south. Some estimated the crowd by midafternoon to be 50,000. But the traditional figure, arrived at who knows how and used through the years, is 40,000. Old photographs show women in full-length dresses carrying palmetto fans, and many men in shirt sleeves, though modestly rolled down and buttoned.

Scott Joplin, the ragtime composer, was probably there. Historical evidence puts him in Temple, 50 miles away, the next day. And a piece of his called the Great Crush Collision march is a pretty good musical transcription of the event.

A danger area was roped off. But so many people wanted to watch from what, in another context, would have been the 50-yard line that the crowd kept surging and spilling through the ropes. Many onlookers seemed skeptical that there was any risk, and the constables had a hard time forcing them back. A couple of hours were wasted in this way, and the show dropped behind schedule.

Mechanical failures, especially of the brakes, made runaway trains common in the early days of railroading—mindless monsters rolling out of control for many miles up and down grades until they crashed into another train or derailed at high speed on a curve. The engineers and firemen of No. 999 and No. 1001 were to set the controls and jump before the trains picked up too much speed. If one of the unmanned trains should jump the track, the other would charge right past it and go racing down the Katy main line at full throttle, so the tracks behind each train were cut to stop a runaway.

The trains were brought forward to salute each other, like boxers shaking hands. Pilot to pilot, they met at the post which marked the expected crash point and were photographed. Then each train was backed away exactly one mile. The distinguished guests sat with dignity on the grandstand. William Crush rode up and down on a horse, running the show. A man got down from a tree, thinking the limb might break. A boy eagerly climbed up and, sitting where the man had sat, was killed a few minutes later by a piece of flying metal.

On the final test run one train had covered its mile from a standing start in 120 seconds, the other in 119. It was important to get them off together, if they were to meet anywhere near the chosen point. Crush was in touch with the engineers through telegraphers, one on the ground beside each engine. There was some technical chatter over the telegraph keys. Then Crush gave the order to go, at the same time signaling with his hat to let the crowd know he had done so.

With a steam locomotive, you don't just press a start button and climb down. Certain things have to be done as the train gains speed—things roughly comparable to shifting gears in a car. The engineers and firemen did them and jumped—C.E. Stanton and Frank Barnes from No. 999, Charles Cain and S.M. Dickerson from No. 1001.

Cherry bombs had been fastened to the tracks so that the engines set off exciting bangs as they raced along. The first of Deane's three photographs, taken about a tenth of a second before the crash, shows black plumes of smoke flowing back over each engine. The plumes are long enough and straight enough to indicate exhilarating speed, and the trains themselves are slightly blurred.

They met ten feet north of the chosen point, which was good enough. The VIPs on the 50-yard line had a perfect view until it all disappeared in fire, smoke, dust and steam. Three big bangs came close together. The first was the collision of the engines; the other two were the bursting of one boiler and then the other. Crush raised his eyes to a sky filled with pieces of steel going up, which in a moment would be coming down, and realized that old Hanrahan had been right.

The crowd, too, looked at the sky. But people were so closely packed on the hillsides that no one could dodge the descending chunks of metal and wood. No one could move at all. Some shrieked, some were silent as they waited to be hit or missed.

That moment of anticipation seems to have been the most memorable of all for the witnesses, more impressive even than the crash. Many of them said so then, and Mrs. Millie Nemecek said so to a reporter in 1979. "I've never forgotten what all that stuff up in the air looked like," recalled the West, Texas woman, who, until her death two months ago, was believed to be the last witness to the spectacle. She was 11 when she saw the wreck; 97 when she died.

Most of the heavy stuff fell in the cleared zone. A piece of wood, on the other hand, sailed half a mile and struck a woman senseless. Deane had his right eye put out by a two-inch bolt, and other pieces of metal embedded themselves in his head.

Most of the doctors in the area were there, and they went to work. The number of injured and dead was comparatively small, and the spirits of the crowd were only briefly depressed. Men ran to the wreckage to get the choicest souvenirs, but at first the pieces of sheared and twisted metal burned their hands. Deane's uninjured assistant went on taking rather smeary pictures with what must have been a ponderous view camera and slow, almost sluggish film. One photograph shows hundreds of men standing on the cooling pile of scrap metal, a zigzag of splintered boxcars and thousands milling around in what had been the danger area. Every piece of the wreck that could be taken away was removed, even rather large chunks that had to be heaved into buggies and wagons.

Crush was ritually fired, with fanfare, soon after the crash and then rehired with none a few days later. He had, after all, made the Katy famous. That, it was hoped, would bring not just passengers to its trains but settlers to its sparsely inhabited territory—settlers who would be Katy customers all their lives.

The bereaved and injured were paid off. Deane, for example, had a surgeon remove the metal fragments from his head and accepted $10,000 and a lifetime pass from the M.K&T Railroad in exchange for his right eye. Several weeks after the crash he put a notice in a Waco paper:

Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business.

Deane, Waco's high-priced photographer

I visited the site of the wreck 84 years, nine months and three days after it occurred. The tracks follow exactly the route they did in 1896. It's still prairie country: Johnson grass, careless weeds, sunflowers, a few scrubby trees. Half a mile to the west the new great artery of travel, Interstate 35, parallels the railway.

I had hoped for a pointing hand or an arrow nailed to a signpost, and the legend THIS IS THE SPOT. But you have to estimate where it was for yourself—probably just at the place where the slight downhill grade becomes null for a few feet before becoming a slight uphill grade. You surely can't miss it by much. What is striking is the absolutely perfect symmetry of the views in both directions. North and south, the rails climb gently and identically for a little more than a mile and then drop over the horizons.

It's still a perfect site for a train wreck. One old railroader has said that had it not been for the burst boilers and subsequent damage payments, railway companies all over the country would have staged train wrecks. None ever did; the one on the Katy was unique. Until recently there were a few old men in central Texas who had felt mildly deprived and resentful for 70-odd years. When they were boys their fathers, through prudence, or stinginess, or a sour disapproval of fun, had refused to let them see the great crash. They never got another chance to see one.